Watch CBSN Live

Can You Hear Me Now? The Power of Dissent

Can You Hear Me Now? The Power of Dissent

Quick -- what do the Columbia space shuttle explosion, the Bay of Pigs and "New Coke" have in common?

If you answered that all were disasters, you get partial credit. But to make the grade in a business school classroom -- and in your own decision making -- you need to understand something else about these failure exemplars: dissenting voices did not stand up to power.

We make the best decisions after hearing and understanding opposing views. Even unpopular views. Even views that don't agree with yours. The problem is that most of us are hardwired to not rock the boat. In an organizational setting, speaking up can get you beaten down.

But the sounds of silence can be tragic, according to Harvard Business School professors interviewed in a recent article in the HBS alumni magazine. Even though some NASA engineers believed differently, they were reluctant to challenge long-held beliefs that foam strikes posed no risk to the shuttle. Death claimed the lives of several climbers on Mt. Everest after junior team members didn't speak up against their expert leaders who were ignoring their own safety principles.

"If you want good decision-making, contention is essential," says Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, who now teaches at HBS.

How? Start by rewarding candor and designing incentives to encourage opposing viewpoints. In decision meetings, actively encourage opposing views and play devil's advocate. "Hey Bill, there's a $20 gift certificate in it for you if you tell me why I'm an idiot."

For those of you who turtle at work, read advice from HBS professor Amy Edmondson: Do I Dare Say Something?
Have you been rewarded or rebuffed for speaking up at work? Have you made better decisions by encouraging dissent? Share your your experiences.

(Megaphone image by kimba, CC 2.0)

Sean Silverthorne

Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.

View CBS News In